Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 4

The adventures of Victorian Toronto’s most scientifically-minded detective continue in Murdoch Mysteries season 4, and we’re here to rate them.

  1. “Tattered and Torn” – 4
  2. “Kommando” – 5
  3. “Buffalo Shuffle” – 5.5
  4. “Downstairs, Upstairs” – 6.5
  5. “Monsieur Murdoch” – 4
  6. “Dead End Street” – 10
  7. “Confederate Treasure” – 7.5
  8. “Dial M for Murdoch” – 5
  9. “The Black Hand” – 5.5
  10. “Voices” – 6
  11. “Bloodlust” – 7
  12. “The Kissing Bandit” – 6
  13. “Murdoch in Wonderland” – 5.5

The average rating for this season is 6, down a little bit from last season’s 6.6, but still perfectly respectable. This season represents a good mix of the usual Murdoch fare: there’s a Victorian-flavored version of a contemporary-feeling story (“Kommando,” about soldiers experiencing frightening side effects of experimental drugs), Murdoch-ized takes on popular modern shows and movies (“Downstairs, Upstairs,” about a murder in a house full of servants, and “Dial M for Murdoch” about a telephone operator who thinks she overhears a murder), nineteenth-century international intrigue (“Confederate Treasure,” about the hunt for a missing fortune in gold from the time of the American Civil War), and Murdoch inventing modern technologies (sonar in “Confederate Treasure,” image scanning in “Monsieur Murdoch”). This season also brings us a tedious new turn in the will-they-or-won’t-they tease of Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden, as Dr. Ogden moves away from Toronto, moves back, and marries her new beau Dr. Darcy Garland, while Detective Murdoch wallows in uninteresting tongue-tied despair. Still, all in all, a solid season of Murdoch.

The lowest-rating episodes this season are a couple of 4s: “Tattered and Torn,” in which the discovery of multiple mutilated bodies encased in concrete leads Detective Murdoch to revisit an old rape and murder case, and “Monsieur Murdoch,” in which Murdoch investigates the disappearance of a young French woman who may not be who claimed to be at all. There is nothing particularly wrong with either of these episodes. Both are perfectly competent, but they are also both a little lacking. The pacing sags a bit, the casting is a little off, and the conclusions don’t entirely live up to the promise of the opening mysteries. Still, even these lesser efforts of Murdoch are fun to watch and worth coming back to now and then.

On the other hand, this season has one outstanding episode that gets a full 10 from us: “Dead End Street,” in which Murdoch discovers the clues to a murder in an intricate model of a neighborhood made by a woman who does not communicate in any other way. This case unfolds quietly but intricately as Murdoch faces the challenge of learning about the crime from a witness with an extraordinarily detailed recall of events, but whom he cannot question. Liisa Repo-Martell delivers a powerful guest performance as the model-building woman, conveying the deep intelligence and sensitivity of a person who relates to the world around her in a way very unlike her neighbors.

All in all, an excellent season of Murdcoh, with a lot worth coming back to.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3

Onward to season 3 of Murdoch Mysteries we go, rewatching and rating each episode. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Murdoch Identity” – 8
  2. “The Great Wall” – 6
  3. “Victor, Victorian” – 6.5
  4. “Rich Boy, Poor Boy” – 6
  5. “Me, Myself & Murdoch” – 8.5
  6. “This One Goes to Eleven” – 7.5
  7. “Blood and Circuses” – 5
  8. “Future Imperfect” – 4
  9. “Love and Human Remains” – 9
  10. “The Curse of Beaton Manor” – 7
  11. “Hangman” – 6
  12. “In the Altogether” – 4
  13. “ The Tesla Effect” – 8

The average rating for this season is a strong 6.6, a bit up even from last season’s quite good 6.2. Season 3 continues to build on the series’ strengths—complex mysteries, whimsical humor, and an eye for finding Victorian equivalents to modern issues—while also striking out in some new ways. One innovation this season is the introduction of an ongoing plot surrounding the newly-introduced character of James Pendrick, a visionary inventor who keeps getting tangled up in Detective Murdoch’s investigations. Starting halfway through the season, Mr. Pendrick’s misadventures lead up to a surprise finale that changes our perception of him and the preceding episodes in clever ways.

Unfortunately, the Pendrick storyline also gives us the two lowest-rated episodes of this season, both rating 4: “Future Imperfect,” in which Murdoch and company intersect with H. G. Wells and the eugenics movement, and “In the Altogether,” in which prostitutes and pornographers are caught up in a blackmailing scandal. Each episode has its merits and good moments, but they are dragged down by the need to serve the unfolding Pendrick drama, which leaves too little room for their own individual stories to develop.

By contrast, the best episode of the season, “Love and Human Remains,” at 9, tells a story that, for all its small and self-contained scope, offers a bounty of human drama and investigative intrigue. When the bodies of a murdered couple turn up at a building site, Murdoch goes digging through the past, peeling back layers of time to uncover a story of cruelty, desperation, and, ultimately, the triumph of love over adversity. It is one of the rare mysteries where you want the crime to be solved, but you end up glad that it goes unpunished.

Honorable mention goes to “Me, Myself & Murdoch,” the second best episode of the season at 8.5, which offers a similarly tangled tale of murder, abuse, mental illness, and the unbreakable bonds of love. In this episode, which nods to the historical Lizzie Borden case, a young woman is suspected of having murdered her father with an axe, only to turn out to have multiple personalities whose different perspectives allow Murdoch to piece together an older, even more grisly crime. Guest star Anastasia Phillips gives a virtuoso performance as the young woman under suspicion, whose shifts in personality from terrified to terrifying are amazing to watch.

Murdoch Mysteries remains a pleasure to watch and rewatch.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 2

Here we go, rewatching and rating season 2 of Murdoch Mysteries, the Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective in Victorian Toronto.

  1. “Mild, Mild West” – 7.5
  2. “Snakes and Ladders” – 4
  3. “Dinosaur Fever” – 5.5
  4. “Houdini Whodunnit” – 4
  5. “The Green Muse” – 5
  6. “Shades of Grey” – 5
  7. “Big Murder on Campus” – 7.5
  8. “I, Murdoch” – 8
  9. “Convalescence” – 8
  10. “Murdoch.com” – 7
  11. “Let Us Ask the Maiden” – 6
  12. “Werewolves” – 6
  13. “Anything You Can Do…” – 7

Season 2 makes a strong showing with an average rating of 6.2, improving on season 1’s 5.3. While there are no truly outstanding episodes this season, there are none that really falter, either. Everything works pretty well. The characters continue to develop, building on the strengths of the first season, and this season offers further opportunities for Murdoch to tinker with technology that’s ahead of its time, for Dr. Ogden to assert herself in a man’s world, and for Constable Crabtree to pursue outlandish theories.

The lowest-rated episodes this season are a pair of 4s, “Snakes and Ladders,” about a serial killer who may be Jack the Ripper in Toronto, and “Houdini Whodunnit,” in which the titular magician is suspected of plotting a bank robbery. Neither of these episodes is really bad, but both suffer from some weaknesses. “Snakes and Ladders” turns us off because we’ve really lost interest in serial killer narratives, but it still works as an episode. “Houdini Whodunnit” has a clever heist for Murdoch to unravel, but is hampered by some uninspired guest performances, especially in the role of the great magician himself. Still, even these episodes have their moments.

The best of the season is a pair of 8s, “I, Murdoch,” in which a daring assassination in the streets of Toronto leads to an international conspiracy and an early attempt at robotics, and “Convalescence,” in which Detective Murdoch uncovers a daring plot while laid up in bed after a fall off a rooftop. Each of these episodes offers a great example of something Murdoch Mysteries does well: “I, Murdoch” gives us a steampunk-ish Victorian story of intrigue with a twist (and a clever nod to Marvel’s Iron Man franchise), while “Convalescence” lets us watch Murdoch think and tinker in a tale that is no less thrilling for being slow-paced.

This season throws a wrench into the budding romance between William Murdoch and Julia Ogden, as the devout Murdoch, who hopes to some day be a father, discovers that Dr. Ogden had an abortion when she was younger and now cannot have children. Unlike most such will-they-or-won’t-they narrative ploys, this one taps into real emotional issues and treats both characters with dignity and respect.

This season also adds some side characters to the series, some of whom we’ll see again and some we won’t. Dr. Ogden’s sister Ruby will pop up again now and then, though Detective Murdoch’s half brother Jasper Linney won’t. Physics student James Gillies makes his first appearance here, only to reappear a few times in later seasons.

Season 2 is a worthy continuation of season 1, and it prepares the way for more great adventures yet to come.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

A WoW Mole Machine in Murdoch Mysteries?

After months of working on it, we opened up Dark Iron Dwarves last week. Yay! I’ve been leveling my new DI paladin a bit, getting a sense of the new-to-me racial abilities. They include Mole Machine, a way to quickly change locations by tunneling through the earth.

We’ve been rewatcing and rating Murdoch Mysteries for our project for a while now. A seventh-season episode, “Journey to the Centre of Toronto”, has a burrowing or boring machine that should look very familiar to World of Warcraft players.

Murdoch Mysteries s7 e11 Burrowing Machine

It’s a mole machine, right? Right!?!

WoW Westfall Sentinel Hill w Dark Iron Dwarf Mole Machine

The episode doesn’t actually ever call the device mole machine, but some of the characters do talk about hypothetical mole people who live underground. I wonder whether there are any WoWers in the writers’ room? 😀

In any case, even though the series seems to otherwise strive towards reasonable accuracy, now and then they definitely veer into SSFnal or steampunk-ish. I love the tongue-firmly-in-cheek attitude!

Images: screenshot from the tv series Murdoch Mysteries, season 7, episode 11, “Journey to the Centre of Toronto”. World of Warcraft screencap with Dark Iron Dwarf mole machine in Westfall.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 1

Our next series up for rewatching and rating is Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective at the turn of the twentieth century. This show combines the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with a touch of steampunk as Detective Murdoch loves to tinker and invents everything from the lie detector to internet catfishing in the service of Victorian crimefighting. Here’s our take on the first season:

  1. “Power” – 6
  2. “The Glass Ceiling” – 4
  3. “The Knockdown” – 6
  4. “Elementary, My Dear Murdoch” – 4
  5. “Till Death Do Us Part” – 5.5
  6. “Let Loose the Dogs” – 4.5
  7. “Body Double” – 5.5
  8. “Still Waters” – 6
  9. “Belly Speaker” – 2
  10. “Child’s Play” – 5.5
  11. “Bad Medicine” – 5.5
  12. “The Rebel and the Prince” – 4.5
  13. “The Annoying Red Planet” – 10

Murdoch Mysteries gets off to a good start with an average rating of 5.3, modest but respectable. It takes the series a while to warm up as the actors find their roles, but by the end of the season our favorites are all on the screen: the thoughtful, soft-spoken Detective Murdoch; the erudite, self-assured medical examiner Dr. Ogden; the pugnacious Inspector Brackenreid; and the whimsical but good-hearted Constable Crabtree. This season mostly plays as a fairly standard police show, just set a century ago, but by the end of the season you can see the team starting to have fun with the series’ trademark of transposing modern ideas into a Victorian setting, suitably adapted to the society and technology of the time.

Most of this season’s episodes are solidly in the middle range from 4 to 6, competent but not always inspired, but there are two outliers, one in each direction. The lowest-rated episode is “Belly Speaker,” a 2, about a mentally disturbed ventriloquist who seems to be confessing to murder through his dummy. This episode was probably meant to be a tense psychological thriller that keeps the audience guessing, but it’s just a one-trick pony. One-trick ponies can be entertaining if the trick is good enough, but this one’s trick is a puppet with a bad attitude and a super annoying voice. It’s not enough.

On the other hand, the season goes out with a bang in “The Annoying Red Planet,” at a full 10, in which a dead body mysteriously lodged in a tree leads to fears of alien visitation and an international conspiracy. This episode deftly weaves together contemporary speculations about life on Mars and phantom airships with the tropes of modern political thrillers and UFO narratives. It also introduces one the series’ most delightful recurring characters in the mysterious man in (a) black (top hat), Terrence Myers.

It’s a good start to Murdoch Mysteries, showing the series’ potential while also leaving room to grow.

Are you a Murdoch fan? Got a take of your own on season 1? Let us know!

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

A New Doctor with New Best Friends

The new Doctor Who season started this past weekend, on Sunday October 07, 2018. The big thing, of course, is that Jodie Whittaker makes her doctorial debut in season 11! I have some thoughts on it. But first, the official trailers:

Doctor Who: Series 11 Trailer by Doctor Who on YouTube

Doctor Who: Series 11 Trailer #2 by Doctor Who on YouTube

I get chills from both! 😀 Although the music choices for trailer 2 seem a little odd—I suspect I might be missing some cultural references here.

I haven’t seen the first episode yet, so I only have previously shared glimpses, various reports, and other people’s reactions to go by. Reading to the rescue, then! Below are quotes from some of the most interesting writeups I found.

Spoiler warning is in effect! (Also, because some quotes are quite long, I’ll pop the rest behind a cut.)

Read the whole post.

Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 2

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 2 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man 3; Thor: The Dark World; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Guardians of the Galaxy; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ant-Man).

Characters included

  • Iron Man 3: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Aldrich Kilian, Happy Hogan, Trevor Slattery, President Ellis, Savin, Harley Keener, Vice President Rodriguez, Maya Hansen, Pepper Potts, Brandt, Colonel Rhodes / War Machine, Yinsen
  • Thor: The Dark World: Thor, Loki, Odin, Malekith, Fandral, Volstagg, Erik Selvig, Ian, Jane Foster, Sif, Frigga, Darcy Lewis, Heimdall, Korath, Algrim, Hogun
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Alexander Pierce, Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier, Rumlow, Agent Sitwell, Arnim Zola, Rollins, American World Security Councilor, Senator Stern, Batroc, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Maria Hill, Sharon Carter / Agent 13, Peggy Carter, British World Security Councilor, Nick Fury, Sam Wilson / Falcon, Indian World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Peter Quill / Star-Lord, Ronan, Yondu Udonta, Dey, The Collector, Kraglin, Saal, Nebula, Nova Prime, Bereet, Carina, Gamora, Drax
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (new characters): Bruce Banner / Hulk, Clint Barton / Hawkeye, Pietro Maximoff / Quicksliver, Baron Strucker, Dr. List, Ulysses Klaue, Vision, Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch, Laura Barton, Dr. Helen Cho
  • Ant-Man: Scott Lang / Ant-Man, Hank Pym, Darren Cross / Yellowjacket, Paxton, Luis, Kurt, Mitchell Carson, Hope van Dyne, Cassie Lang, Maggie Lang, Dave, Gale

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 2

We’re moving on with rewatching and rating the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on the next crop:

  1. Iron Man 3 – 5
  2. Thor: The Dark World – 4.5
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 8
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy – 3
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron – 5.5
  6. Ant-Man – 7

The average rating for this phase is 5.5, which is solidly mediocre, and that pretty much sums of the movies of this period: solid, but mediocre.

After an experimental start in phase 1, Marvel had clearly worked out its superhero movie formula by phase 2, which is both the strength and the weakness of these movies. The hero is an ordinary guy (still almost entirely guys) who gets or discovers some awesome power, struggles to balance his responsibilities as a hero with his own desire for a simpler, more comfortable life, and ends up fighting the equal and opposite guy (still entirely guys), who wants to use his power for wealth and/or self-aggrandizement. Marvel’s formula is by no means a bad one. It consistently delivers watchable summer popcorn flicks, but in phase 2 we begin to see the limits of the formula. Movies that stick to the formula chug around in the middle of the range, while those that stretch their bounds sometimes excel and sometimes flop.

Iron Man 3 rates a 5, the lowest of the Iron Man movies, largely because Tony Stark’s character just doesn’t have any room to grow. Number 3 provides some good action and Tony-tinkering, but its emotional rhythms just feel like a retread of 1 and 2.

Thor: The Dark World gets a 4.5, a slight step up from the first Thor, which isn’t saying much. Christopher Eccleston’s wooden performance as the villain Malekith, who gets almost no interaction with any other characters to enliven his scenes, doesn’t help the murky plot. The lack of chemistry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster drags the movie down, although the perpetual spark between Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki brings it back up a bit.

The best movie of the phase is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, at 8. While we don’t like everything about this movie (I, for one, have never felt emotionally invested in the Steve-Bucky relationship), its pacing is crisp, the action is sharp-edged, and the emergence of the new Hydra represents a daring narrative choice for the MCU, which could have chosen to stay on safer ground.

The Winter Soldier is followed up by the worst movie of the lot, Guardians of the Galaxy, at 3. We know that our opinion of Guardians is not shared by many Marvel fans, but we find the movie tedious and most of its characters annoying. We’re not fond of stories in which a lone competent woman with a strong motivation has her narrative taken over by a self-centered man-child. We’re also not on board with a story whose emotional climax comes with that woman getting called a whore by another character out of the blue. Besides, all the crap we didn’t like when we were kids in the 80s is still crap we don’t like now.

Avengers: Age of Ultron muddles through with a 5.5. It is a movie filled with character moments that almost work, dialogue that almost means something, and narrative choices that almost make sense. A few excellent performances, like James Spader’s Ultron and Paul Bettany’s Vision help lift the rating, but they’re pulling against a lot of dead weight.

Ant-Man takes us out on a high note, at 7, with a zany tiny-sized heist that, like sucking on a good piece of candy, doesn’t really satisfy your hunger, but sure feels good while you’re doing it. The small scope of this movie (literally and narratively) is an asset, allowing the jokes to land and the characters to develop without too much worrying about the end of the world to get in the way.

Have a different favorite (or un-favorite)? Let us know!

Image: Screenshot from Captain America: The Winter Soldier via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 1 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man; The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man 2; Thor; Captain America: The First Avenger; Avengers).

Characters included

  • Iron Man: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Obedaiah Stane, Agent Coulson, Happy Hogan, Abu Bakaar, Pepper Potts, Christine Everhart, Colonel Rhodes, Nick Fury, Yinsen, Raza
  • The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner / Hulk, General Ross, Emil Blonsky, Leonard, Stanley, Samuel Sterns, Betty Ross, Major Sparr,
  • Iron Man 2 (new characters): Ivan Vanko, Senator Stern, Justin Hammer, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
  • Thor (new characters): Thor, Loki, Odin, Erik Selvig, Volstag, Fandral, Agent Sitwell, Clint Barton / Haweye, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Sif, Frigga, Heimdall, Hogun
  • Captain America: The First Avenger: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Colonel Philips, Johann Schmidt / Red Skull, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine, Dr. Zola, Dum Dum Dugan, James Falsworth, Jacques Dernier, Gilmore Hodge, Senator Brandt, Peggy Carter, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita
  • Avengers (new characters): American World Security Councilor, Russian World Security Councilor, Agent Hill, British World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.